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Because of the French domination of the culinary scene since time began (or so it seems, anyway), it stands to reason the most famous chefs in history are - what else? - French, with the exception of one American woman (discussed later), who was, nevertheless, trained in classical French cooking.
Known as the "King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings," Antoine Careme went from being an abandoned child left at the door of a restrauteur in 18th century Paris, to become the father of "haute cuisine" - the high art of French cooking - in the early 19th century. Chef to then-world movers and shakers such as diplomat Talleyrand-Perigord, the future King George IV, Czar Alexander I, and the powerful banker James Rothschild, Careme is noted for his voluminous writings on cooking, including the famed L'Art de la Cuisine Francaise (The Art of French Cooking), a five-volume masterpiece on menu planning, table settings, hundreds of recipes, and a history of French cooking.
Another Frenchman, George Auguste Escoffier, bridged the 19th and 20th centuries with a modernization of Careme's elaborate cuisine by ingenious simplification of it. Escoffier lent his talents as a chef to open the Ritz and Carlton hotels with partner Cesar Ritz, and then went on to wow such illustrious passengers as Kaiser William II of Germany on the German liner Imperator. Besides being known for such famous treats at Peach Melba, created for Australian singer Nellie Melba in 1893, Escoffier penned numerous volumes on cooking and was largely instrumental in the betterment of conditions within commercial kitchens. A stickler for cleanliness, he demanded the same from his workers and forbade swearing or any type of violence, which at the time, was common as apprentices and other help were routinely beaten by older staff.
Charles Ranhofer, the son of a restrauteur and the grandson of a chef, goes down in the annals of great chefs as the first French chef to bring the grandeur of his country's cuisine to America. Noted primarily as the head chef of New York City's famed Delmonico's restaurant, Ranhofer ran its kitchens for nearly 34 years. Serving such luminaries as President Andrew Johnson, President U.S. Grant, Charles Dickens, and a host of foreign dignitaries, Ranhofer created such culinary distinctions as Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska, among many others. He also wrote "one of the most complete treatises of its kind," according to the New York Times in praise of his book, The Epicurean, published in 1894.
A discourse on famous historical chefs would not be complete without the inclusion of one of the most gifted chefs of all time: an American woman named Julia Child. Born to a prominent California family, Child did not begin to cook until the age of 34. It was after she moved with her husband to France that she had her grand epiphany: Good food is more than roast beef and mashed potatoes. She flung herself headlong into an education at the esteemed Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and later wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking with two partners. Child went on to become the first "celebrity chef" with more books, television programs, newspaper columns, and magazine articles. She brought exquisite French cuisine to America as much with her "have-a-good-time" attitude toward cooking as she did with her talent and expertise.
To all these great chefs, we owe a debt for their giftedness and tireless contributions that have truly turned cooking into an art form. It does make one wonder, however, if ever the temptation arose with any of them to ever dine secretly on a lowly peanut butter and jelly sandwich or to toast the evening with Kool-Aid and crackers. We'll never know, but we'll surely speculate - as we take another bite of quiche Lorraine.